Mandolin Strings are very important, as they have a big effect on your mandolin sound. The selection of mandolin strings is important, but also important is to know how to maintain your strings and when/how to change them. This article covers the above, explaining the following subjects in below paragraphs:
- Strings thickness, gauge and tension
- Strings wrap materials
- Strings core materials
- Strings construction
- Strings maintenance (cleaning)
- Strings replacement (when and how to change them)
A frequent question that I hear is “…which strings are right/best for my instrument?”. Although there’s no single answer to this question, the good thing is that a set of mandolin strings is rather inexpensive, costing from 5 dollars to 50, tops. Compare that with the cost of a set of cello strings, and you quickly understand that the mandolin allows you to experiment with different types and manufacturers of strings! Here is what you need to understand to select your set of mandolin strings:
Mandolin strings thickness (or gauge) and tension
The gauge is the thickness of a string’s diameter as measured in thousandths of an inch (e.g. 0.11, .16 etc.).
It is better to start with sets of strings with predefined gauges. As you experiment more, you may find that you prefer a specific chord (e.g. the E string or the A string) to be of a specific gauge. It is then when you start buying strings in pairs instead of sets.
As gauges come with many varieties, the industry quickly realized that it needed to categorize gauges to few categories to help buyers easier select strings. Thus, it started using three labels, namely light, medium and heavy, with heavy being the thicker ones. Concurrently, the tension term came into use. The mandolin strings gauge, described usually with the terms light/medium/heavy is directly related with the tension strings place on the instrument typically labeled as low, middle, high.
How to select which gauge/tension to use?
Mandolins come with a string specification, i.e. a recommendation from the luthier of the gauge/tension to use, as using heavier gauges than what the mandolin was designed for, may damage the mandolin neck on the long run. Nevertheless, as heavier strings place more tension they tend to project more powerful sound, and are therefore preffered by mandolin soloists in concerts. In such cases, the expert advise of the luthier should be asked.
Also note that heavy strings are harder to play; you need to apply more force on a fret in order to play the note. This makes playing fast more difficult and as you understand you must find a balance between speed and sound power.
Finally some mandolin types may be damaged with heavy strings, as for example old bowlback mandolins. Newer mandolins like the carved ones used in the United States are made stronger, and therefore typically use heavy strings, while flatback use medium strings.
So the conclusion is:
“…use heavy strings for more powerful sound but only if you are sure it will not damage your instrument!”
Mandolin Strings construction – Round-Wound, Flat-Top and Silk-Steel
The mandolin strings construction can have a dramatic impact on feel and playability. For example I prefer flat top strings, as fingers just slide up and down the fretboard with ease. In my case this is not only related with speed but also with sound. Sliding notes on flat top strings produce a very impressive sound! On the other hand, flat tops sound tends to be “darker” than other types, so…
“…It is advised to experiment with different types of strings, till you decide the type of strings that suits you best.”
Round wound strings are the most popular and are offered by almost all manufacturers. They deliver a textured feel most players are familiar and comfortable with. They are also the cheaper ones.
Flat tops are constructed from finished round wound strings. They are further processed to carefully flatten the tops of the windings through a polishing technique. Flat Tops are known to deliver a smoother feel and reduced finger noise with the flexibility and tension of a round wound string and for this reason are sometimes preferred by professional artists for recording. They are also used by classical orchestras to minimize “noise” picked up by microphones during live performances.
Silk-Steel are made of silver-plated copper wrap wire interwoven with silk-like fibers for soft, easy fingering and a mellow tone. They are preferred by many folk and finger style players.
How to select which construction to use?
Flat tops are typically more expensive and have less “noise” when moving on the fretboard, making them ideally for recordings. But note, they tend to produce a less bright tone, so everything comes to personal preference!
Mandolin strings materials